In a 2022 report published by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Saudi Arabia emerged as the fastest-growing economy among G20 nations. The robust growth and dynamic economic developments have propelled Saudi Arabia into the global spotlight, raising questions about its trajectory and potential consequences for the West.
Saudi Arabia’s recent surge in prominence was further underscored by a historic declaration at the G20 summit – the proposal to construct a new economic corridor spanning from India through the Middle East to Europe. While this initiative promises economic and financial benefits, it also signifies a material shift in the geopolitical landscape of the region. Importantly, it fosters closer ties between Israel and the Saudis, which was acknowledged by the Crown Prince only moments before writing this article.
Traditionally, Saudi Arabia has occupied a pivotal role as one of the world’s largest oil producers. Consequently, Western nations maintained a delicate balancing act in their relationship with the Kingdom. On one hand, access to oil production and favorable prices were of paramount importance to the West. On the other hand, concerns over human rights violations and the treatment of women within Saudi Arabia often led to discomfort among Western leaders when engaging with Saudi officials.
However, under the leadership of Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MBS), Saudi Arabia’s young and ambitious Crown Prince, the nation seems to have more enthusiastic global aspirations. MBS envisions the Middle East as the “new Europe,” with hopes of ushering in peace, prosperity, and economic development to the region. Thus far, he has made significant strides in achieving these goals.
This begs the question: Is Saudi Arabia poised to become an even more prominent economic player on the world stage? If so, what implications does this hold for the West as it elevates the Kingdom to such prominence?
In a recent episode of “The Lonely Podcast,” I had the privilege of speaking with Yasmine Mohammed, a human rights activist and the author of the book “Unveiled: How Western Liberals Empower Radical Islam.” Mohammed, who grew up in a fundamentalist Muslim family in Canada, married a member of Al Qaeda, and ultimately liberated herself from the shackles of radical Islam, shed light on the complexities facing Saudi Arabia. She emphasized that Saudi Arabia, as the birthplace of Islam’s Hajj pilgrimage, faces a unique challenge in balancing its desire to open up to the West while maintaining a strict adherence to Sharia law.
Drawing a historical analogy, it may be pertinent to compare today’s Saudi Arabia with China in the early 1990s. At that time, as the West, particularly the United States, embraced deeper economic ties with China, there was a prevailing belief that increased exposure to Western values would lead to China’s “Westernization.” However, over three decades later, it is evident that this assumption did not materialize, and the opposite occurred.
As the United States and Europe became more intertwined with China, Chinese influence expanded globally. Today, American corporations often find themselves accommodating the Chinese Communist Party’s demands, sometimes at the expense of democratic values. For instance, prominent figures like LeBron James criticized Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, for commenting on China’s actions in Hong Kong, and Fast and Furious star John Cena, issued an apology for recognizing Taiwan as an independent country. These instances underscore the extent to which American corporations are deeply entwined with China, with a significant portion of their revenue dependent on access to the Chinese market.
Could a similar scenario unfold with Saudi Arabia? As Europe and the Middle East draw closer together, there is a looming question: Will Saudi Arabia become more Westernized, or will Western corporations adapt to Islamic laws to avoid offending Saudi interests? Reflecting on the Chinese example, it appears that the latter outcome is more likely.
Before we run to the streets and cheer for the new peace in the Middle East, we should exercise caution. Saudi Arabia is a powerful country with a strong economy and immense amount of wealth. Its autocratic government makes reaching agreements with foreign leaders easier, as MBS is the ultimate decision-maker in most matters, thus enabling changes to occur more quickly.
Nonetheless, it is crucial to recognize that Saudi Arabia operates under the framework of Sharia Law, a legal system characterized by distinct social and moral norms that significantly differ from the values we uphold in the Western world. Within this context, women’s rights are constrained by guardianship laws, homosexuality remains prohibited, and minority groups frequently encounter unequal treatment, to say the least.
Western countries and corporations should not compromise their ethical principles, even when confronted with lucrative financial incentives. Upholding shared values and principles must remain at the forefront of international engagements, ensuring that progress does not come at the expense of fundamental human rights and equality.